The Alchemy of Service - Part 1: Mouse Soup

I’ve always known that my brother’s wife brother’s wife, Joann Wong, had a cool career. But when we’re in the same room, it’s usually for a family gathering—we’re too busy dishing up food to have a real conversation. Recently I invited her to talk with me about her work. Her vivid storytelling riveted me. And I learned how, by expanding the concept of the family unit to include the larger world, she fueled a lifelong passion for public service. This is the first of five installments of that conversation.

Sarah: How did you first get enamored of service?

Joann: I always wanted to serve others. I’m a first-generation Chinese-American, the product of immigrants who lived through food-shortages and war, and sought something better for their children. I learned from my culture and my family how important it was to support the family unit. But somehow in my mind, “family” expanded to “world.”

S: Tell me about your parents’ experience.

 Joann's mother, grandmother, and maternal uncle in Macau.

Joann's mother, grandmother, and maternal uncle in Macau.

J: My mom was born in Macau, a small Portuguese territory. During World War II, Macau was initially a neutral area. Refugees from China flooded the tiny island, leading to food shortages and appalling living conditions. Then the Japanese took power. My mom tells stories of how people lined up for rice rations every day. After they left the line, they’d discover that under a top layer of rice the servers had filled the bowls with sand. Early in her life, my mom became sick and lacked proper nutrition. She was so malnourished she lost all her hair. Her grandmother cooked a soup made of mice—so my mother would get the nourishment she needed to grow her hair back. Her grandmother insisted on using field mice, because they’re cleaner than street mice.

My dad was born in Hawaii when it was a US territory. My grandfather had come from China to California where he found work building railroads. Later he went to Kauai, where he worked for the Wilcox family at what is now called the Grove Farm Homestead, as kitchen staff, and he and my grandmother started a family. One day, when my dad was around four years old, my grandfather had his palm read and was told, “You’re going to die in the next five years.” When he heard this, he told his family that he wanted to die in his homeland. So my grandfather packed up the family and moved everyone back to China. My grandfather lived another ten years. My dad emphatically advised us, “Don’t ever believe palm readers!”

Once back in China, my father and his parents lived in a village area called Hoi Ping, outside of Guangzhou. My dad told me less about their living conditions and more about what his father was like. My grandfather was extremely strict, and corporal punishment was typically the discipline of choice. When my grandfather got home from work, if his slippers were not properly set out, someone got hit. If family members talked during dinner, someone got hit.

When my father was 14, my grandfather died from what my dad thinks may have been a heart attack. This was during World War II, when the Japanese attacked China. My father remembers being chased through the fields by a Japanese soldier as a teen. My grandmother was a tough, sturdy woman. She’d walk for miles carrying two buckets of salt slung on each end of a stick that she balanced across her shoulders. She’d walk to the edge of the main road where she could sell the salt, and then walk back home at the end of the day. That’s how she sustained her four children.

S: As immigrants to the US after the war, what work did your parents find here?

 Photo from a Kauai newspaper article describing the return of Joann's father, 黃均 森 (Kwan Sun Wong, aka Sam) and other Americans who were repatriated to the US from China after World War II. Joann's father is on the right.

Photo from a Kauai newspaper article describing the return of Joann's father, 黃均 森 (Kwan Sun Wong, aka Sam) and other Americans who were repatriated to the US from China after World War II. Joann's father is on the right.

J: While living in China, my dad’s family stayed in contact with the Wilcox family in Hawaii. When the war ended, one of the Wilcox family members wrote to my Uncle George and advised him and my dad to go to the US Embassy in Guangzhou to try to return to the US since both my uncle and father are American citizens. Ultimately, my dad and his brother returned to Hawaii on a US military ship that was coming back from Guangzhou. They worked for the Wilcox family on Kauai. My dad was a gardener for Sam Wilcox. Sensing more employment opportunities might exist on the mainland, my dad moved to San Francisco. In the Bay Area, he ultimately became a butcher. He dealt with a lot of racism on the job; he was called “Chinaman” and “Chink.” He had to put up a front, act like it was all fine. Ironically, my father’s youngest brother died serving in the U.S. Army during the Korean War—we’re a Gold Star family!

 Joann's mother 陳玉簫 (Yook Siu, aka Marion) at California Beauty School on Market Street in San Francisco.

Joann's mother 陳玉簫 (Yook Siu, aka Marion) at California Beauty School on Market Street in San Francisco.

My mom came to the US at the age of 16 and did well in school, particularly in math. She enjoyed tinkering with mechanisms and figuring out how things work. She wanted to study to be an engineer but didn’t have enough money to pay for a college education. Instead she took classes at a trade school and became a beautician. She worked in a beauty shop at JCPenney for a little over a year, then opened a salon with two other business partners. My mom also experienced her share of discrimination, including a time when one of her clients exclaimed how hearing my mom speak in Cantonese to another customer at the salon gave the client a headache. She asked my mom to stop speaking Cantonese.

 Joann's mother (second from right) during her stint at JCPenney in San Francisco.

Joann's mother (second from right) during her stint at JCPenney in San Francisco.

 Joann in her paternal grandmother's lap.

Joann in her paternal grandmother's lap.

Anyway, as a result of my parents' struggles, they encouraged us to work hard, always do our best, stay committed to our family, and get a good education. My father would say, "Don't end up in a situation where others can boss you around. Be your own boss." As a kid, I didn't have many chores; I was expected to focus on my education. When I would offer to help, my mom would say, "No, you go and study."

Next Installment:                             Mom, It's Only a Nickel